Public surveillance review would take too long, Fitzgerald says

New inquiry will cover data requests from gardaí, GSOC, Revenue and Defence Forces

A review into the accessing of journalists' telephone and internet records was not extended to the public because it would have taken too long, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald has said.

Though concerns around the extent of accessing data began with revelations that the Garda Síochána Ombudsman (GSOC) had sanctioned its own staff to access the records of journalists, the Garda made some 62,000 requests to access data over the five years to 2012.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties and the advocacy group Digital Rights Ireland have both expressed their concern at the terms of reference of the inquiry, chaired by former chief justice John Murray, saying it should not be restricted to an examination of journalists' data only.

However, Ms Fitzgerald said the issues that arose in relation to the work of the media needed to be addressed quickly.


“[If I] had asked chief justice Murray to look at the law in this whole area, it would have been a much longer exercise and would have delayed resolving the specific issue about journalistic records that has given rise to concern,” she said.

The review will be completed within three months, she said.

Data retention

“This review will cover all bodies that can have access to records under the Data Retention Act, including GSOC, An Garda Síochána, the

Revenue Commissioners

and the

Defence Forces

, ” she said.

Under legislation enacted in 2011, a gardaí at chief superintendent rank or higher can sanction other gardaí to request the internet or telephone records of persons of interest from their service providers.

The same powers are also enjoyed by these other agencies where senior staff can grant permission to seek the retained data.

While GSOC and the Garda had both declined to reveal how the application systems operate internally, Ms Fitzgerald has revealed the procedures.

“The department has been advised by the Garda authorities that the procedure is that applications under the 2011 Act are routed through a single chief superintendent for consideration,” the reply issued on her behalf said.

In the case of GSOC, the chair of the organisation, Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring, approved requests to be made to a telecoms company.

Suspected crimes

While the Garda and GSOC have the power to access retained data to investigate suspected crimes, the circumstances under which Revenue and the Defence Forces would access data are perhaps less clear.

However, informed sources said that Revenue commissioners investigated and prosecuted in the courts a range of serious crimes, including fuel laundering and smuggling, cigarette smuggling and tax evasion and fraud, some of it on a large scale.

The same sources also said the Revenue’s Customs Service seized large consignments of drugs and cash. This was realised by the State because those caught carrying it could not explain its origins.

Of the near 6,000 applications – some containing multiple requests – made for internet and telephone data last year, 246 were made by the Defence Forces.

It gathers intelligence on domestic and international terrorists regarded as a risk at home and abroad and also monitors other groups whose activities would be regarded as a threat. It shares its intelligence with the Garda.

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times